Galamsey in Ghana — to ban or not to ban?

It is estimated that 1.1 million people work under small-scale mining (SSM) in Ghana. SSM is comprised of official registered operations and unofficial galamsey (or informal mining). Concerns over galamsey include the loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation, chemical contamination and the employment of child labour.  As a result, the government imposed a six-month ban (with an extension of three months) on all forms of small-scale mining (SSM) earlier this year(Ghana Web, 2018a). Yet, galamsey remains a prevalent practice which dominates the mainstream mass media and the conversations in Ghana (BBC, 2017).

This article attempts to answer the following questions – Why galamsey remains prevalent in Ghana despite constant government effort to regulate it? What are the interest entanglements behind galamsey?


What are stopping galamsey workers from obtaining a proper mining license?

Even though official licensing application procedure is in place, approximately 85% of small-scale mining operators remain unregistered. The public narratives about galamsey in Ghana assert that the practice is an opportunist enterprise which is operated by people who want to earn “quick money”, and stigmatized them as morally questionable (Lidman, 2016).

According to Arylee et al. (2013), the licensing procedure is highly complex and time-consuming. To register, applicants firstly have to submit ten copies of a complete small-scale mining application forms, together with the site plans to the local SSM office. After that, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will conduct an inspection of the site and produce an inspection report which is then forwarded to the District Chief Executive (DCE) of the district, where the SSM is applied to take place. EPA then issues the environmental permit, taking DCE’s comment into account. As the last step, the evidence of payment, the environmental permit and the application will be forward to the Minister of Mines for approval. The license is subjected to renewal after three to five-year time. On top of that, the applicants may have to pay bribes to the officials involving in the licensing process. Not to mention many gold-bearing belts have already been allocated to the large-scale mining (LSM) companies by concession.

As a result, and not surprisingly, the most frequent reasons of not obtaining a license are related to the high cost of registration, the lengthy procedure as well as the worry that of not obtaining a suitable land to mine  (Hilson & Potter, 2003; Nyame & Blocher, 2010).


Why should we care about galamsey?

Lost revenue

According to Africa Centre for Energy Policy (ACEP), about US$6 billion worth of gold exported from Ghana in year 2017 was unreported and untaxed. It was estimated that the lost tax revenue can be as high as US$180 million in withholding tax. Sum up together, this can be more than the withholding tax paid by the LSM sector (BBC, 2017).

Environmental degradation

The use of heavy metals and chemicals such as lead, mercury and cyanide, in the mining process has caused detrimental pollutions on the water bodies, soil and air. For example, Offin River which is the largest river systems in Ghana turned into alarming yellow from its original blue colour in recent years. Environmental damage is exacerbated with the use of heavy machineries such as excavators and bulldozers which are introduced by the Chinese miners several years ago.

Health risks

Exposure to heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and cyanide have substantial negative impacts on galamsey workers in the site. The mercury also affect the water bodies, the soil and subsequently the health of people living nearby through drinking, air transmission and fish consumption. According to a government statement, widespread mercury contamination has been observed throughout the country, including in Tarkwa, Obuasi, Talensi and Nabdam (Petetsi, 2018). It is also revealed that 33% of boreholes and 58% of river waters exceeded the World Health Organization guideline value of 400 µg/l for Manganese (Mn) in drinking water. In addition, the stagnant water in the open pits also causes more reports of malaria.

Conflicted land use

Galamsey has also heightened the conflicted land use problem in the country, most notably with the cocoa plantation. Ghana which contributes 20% of the world’s cocoa supply, is the world second largest exporter of cocoa. However, recent study by the Institute for Democratic Governance (IDEG) has shown galamsey is threatening the cocoa production. It is especially because areas surrounding cocoa heartlands—Pra River Basin, including parts of Ghana’s Central, Western and Ashanti region, are considered to hold high concentration of gold deposits (National Geographic, 2018). Gold mining with heavy metals, not only terminates plant populations and inhibits crop’s growth, it also leaves lands permanently poisoned.


A caveat:  What are the factors which force people into galamsey?


Many reports and researches have pointed out that galamsey in Ghana is poverty-driven that people work to meet survival needs (Wilson, Renne, Roncoli, Agyei-Baffour & Tonkorang, 2015; Okoh and Hilson, 2011; Chupezi; Ingram & Schure, 2009). For example, according to Afriyie, Ganle & Adomako (2016), 48.8% of the respondents site poverty as the main cause of galamsey. It may not be an understatement that millions of Ghanaians’ income is closely tied to the practice.

Lack of agriculture land

Local community members are forced into galamsey because they are displaced from their lands because of the large-scale exploration and mining activities (Hilson & Banchirigah, 2009).

This phenomenon is highly related to the land use right in Ghana. On the one hand, 80% of the surface rights of land use, including farming rights and rights to build, are privately owned. On the other hand, the 1992 Constitution states that the ownership of the underground mineral resources is vested in the President on behalf of the citizens in Ghana. Therefore, the President can compulsorily acquire lands from private individuals under legislation such as State Lands act 1962. According to a survey, 28.5% of respondents named that dispossession of agriculture lands as the main reason which force them to galamsey.

Limited employment opportunities

Reports and researches have stated that limited employment alternatives and the lack of job security in communities as important push factors of galamsey in Ghana (International Growth Centre, 2017; Wilson, Renne, Roncoli, Agyei-Baffour & Tonkorang, 2015; Gracia, 2018). Youth unemployment and jobless-growth have been identified as major socio-economic and political problem in the country (Baah-Boateng, 2018), with most of the new jobs created are in informal sector. While unemployment hits all age-groups, youth which constitutes 33.5% of Ghana population is regarded as being most seriously affected. It is mainly because of low level of education and lack of working experience.


Interest entanglements – State Interests in Galamsey?

I argue that apart from the three reasons mentioned above, the vested interests of the state in galamsey also contribute to the prevalence of the practice. I will elaborate further on this point through taking a closer look at the interaction among Precious Minerals Marketing Corporation (PMMC), the state regulatory agencies and the galamsey operators.

Recently, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Illegal Mining (INCIM) was established to attain the long-term objective of combating illegal small-scale mining, environmental protection and ensure the mining standard in Ghana meet with international standard (Ghana Web, 2018). However, the action taken by PMMC and Minerals Commission make us wonder if the government has been intentionally tolerating galamsey.

To begin, Ghana’s Minerals Commission has often taken an ambivalent stance over galamsey activities by neither endorsing the practice, nor openly advise against the operators (Hilson & Potter, 2003). Secondly and most intriguingly, the mission of PMMC which was established under the Precious Minerals Marketing Corporation Law in 1989, is to buy gold from small-scale miners and sell the precious mineral to earn foreign exchanges (Hilson, 2001)[1]. Why does the government buy gold from unofficial small-scale mining if it is against of the practices? It seems to me that the establishment of PMMC, which is mandated to buy gold from small-scale miners at competitive prices, is an important step in supporting the industry.


Some thoughts

While it is undeniable that galamsey brings obvious negative impacts on environmental, economic and social development in Ghana, I have the following reflections:

  1. LSM may cause similar problems if not to a more serious extent. The negative effects may however be less visible because of their close-door operation and the companies’ ability to cover the consequences up. Therefore, if the government is to ban galamsey based on the above-mentioned reasons, they have no reason to legally permit LSM except for the economic contribution argument.
  2. However, the economic contribution argument is only justifiable if the promise of economic and social development are materialized. Unfortunately, they don’t seem not to be the case. Instead, critics argue galamsey operations bring significantly more employment opportunities and produce more trickle-down effects in society than LSM. In fact, the state and the LSM companies have been criticized to have failed in generating employment opportunities and generate social benefits.
  3. Any effective solutions to galamsey hinge on whether the government can solve the root causes, namely poverty, the lack of agricultural land and the limited employment opportunities. As Foucault rightly reminds us of the ability of discourse in blinding people to certain matters and opening others to gaze, let’s not overlook the role of the state — galamsey may after all be intentionally tolerated by law enforcement and regulatory agencies.

By Mak Lai Man, Jenny



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Okoh, G., & Hilson, G. (2011). Poverty and livelihood diversification: Exploring the linkages between smallholder farming and artisanal mining in rural Ghana. Journal of International Development23(8), 1100-1114.


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Wilson, M., Renne, E., Roncoli, C., Agyei-Baffour, P., & Tenkorang, E. (2015). Integrated assessment of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Ghana—Part 3: Social sciences and economics. International journal of environmental research and public health12(7), 8133-8156.


Photo credit:

National Geographic (2018). Retrieved from





Author: GEN